Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) was an extraordinarily prolific Russian author and playwright. Chekhov explored many themes in his work, including poverty, tragedy, petty bureaucracy, and the daily lives of Russian serfs and peasants. Relatively unknown outside of his native Russia until after the First World War, the plays of Anton Chekhov are now produced all over the world by a wide range of theatre companies.
Anton Chekhov was born in rural Russia to a grocer and a tailor's assistant. He bitterly resented the long and heavy hours he worked in his father's grocery shop as a child, drawing upon those experiences to inform some of his work. Anton Chekhov struggled in school because of his heavy work schedule. When he was 14, his father went bankrupt and moved the family to Moscow, while Anton Chekhov decided to remain in his home town, taking tutoring jobs to support himself.
At the age of 19, Anton Chekhov moved to Moscow and enrolled in medical school, graduating in 1884 and establishing a small practice. While in medical school, Chekhov supported himself and his family by writing short comic stories for publication in numerous Moscow periodicals. Anton Chekhov had a knack for quickly turning out entertaining stories for a simple audience, and he churned out hundreds of them throughout his medical school years. These stories soon began to take off in a major way, providing the majority of Chekhov's economic support and the prospect of a career in writing.
Because of his training as a doctor, Anton Chekhov brought a unique perspective to his work. Many of his characters are dispassionate observers, and he was sometimes criticized for the lack of cutting social commentary in his work. Much of Chekhov's writing is quite tragic, but painted in simple and clear terms, allowing the reader or viewer to come to his or her own conclusions about the material presented.
In 1888, Anton Chekhov won a Pushkin Prize for his fiction. However, shortly thereafter, his play The Wood Demon was an embarrassing failure, and he retreated from the literary world for some time. In 1892, after the successful publication of several collections of his short stories and additional recognition in the literary community, Chekhov retired from medical practice and began to live as a full time writer.
Chekhov's plays were staged in increasingly larger and more successful productions, while he continued to write short stories and novels, although most critics agree that he reached his literary peak with Uncle Vanya in 1900, followed by Three Sisters (1901) and The Cherry Orchard (1904). The plays reflected major changes in Russian society, as well as a more mature and thoughtful Chekhov. They were intended to be dark comedies, although many theatres produce them as tragedies, a reflection of the miserable and meaningless lives of many of the characters.
While Anton Chekhov is most remembered for the three major plays he authored at the end of his life, he also produced a massive body of short stories and vignettes, many of which are quite haunting portrayals of life in Russia at the end of the 19th century. His stories reflect the daily occurrence of minor tragedies in the lives of the poor and the ways in which they were dealt with.